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The Debt of Love

September 8, 2011

Sorry this is so late this week. I’ll try to be more faithful about posting sermons on Monday. Thanks for reading.

“The Debt of Love” Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20 © 9/4/11 Ordinary 23A by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

America has a debt crisis. No, I don’t mean downgrading of our credit rating or the partisan wrangling over raising the debt ceiling that took so much energy and got so much attention this past summer. Interesting that the priority of politicians was the deficit and debt, while at the same time, 25.1 million Americans were either unemployed or underemployed (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/third-world-america-one-y_b_939219.html?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=082911&utm_medium=email&utm_content=FeatureTitle&utm_term=Daily%20Brief).

I’m not even talking about the statistics on consumer debt, though they continue to be startling and disturbing. For example, about 11.1 million households, or 23.1 percent of all mortgaged homes, were underwater, as they say, at the end of 2010 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/08/number-of-underwater-mort_n_833000.html).

Total U.S. revolving debt (98 percent of which is made up of credit card debt) was $793.1 billion, as of May of this year (Source: Federal Reserve’s G.19 report on consumer credit, July 2011, via www.creditcards.com). Total U.S. consumer debt was $2.43 trillion, again as of May (Source: Federal Reserve’s G.19 report on consumer credit, July 2011). Average credit card debt per household that carried such obligations amounted to $15,799.

Balancing those statistics are these findings. Average total debt in 2009 (including credit cards, mortgage, home equity, student loans, etc.) for U.S. households with credit card debt was $54,000, down from $93,850 in 2008.  Average total debt in 2009 (again including all kinds of debt) for all U.S. households was $16,046. That’s down from $35,245 in 2008. 29% of those who responded to a 2010 poll said they don’t have a credit card.

I can’t help but wonder what Paul would think about the situation I’ve just outlined. After all, he insists that we “owe no one anything.”

Our first response might be to say “So what? Who cares what some musty old dead preacher in another country said 2000 years ago?” After all, Paul lived in a day when the banking system as we know it didn’t exist. Certainly, people bought and sold things. Debts were owed and paid, sometimes cancelled. Taxes were levied and grudgingly paid. And we can identify with all that.

But we think of back then as a much simpler time. Life didn’t move quite so fast. There wasn’t as much to have or want. So of course Paul could admonish his readers not to owe anybody anything. And, we have to admit, that sounds great: no car payments, no mortgage, no credit card bills. But who can do that in today’s economy? How would we buy anything off the Internet without a credit card? And it’s so easy to whip out the card instead of carrying cash, especially for large purchases, like your weekly groceries or that last $50 tank of gas or dinner out for the family.

We can get around Paul by spiritualizing his advice. But that would be a mistake. Sometimes credit card and other debt is a moral issue, both for individuals and for organizations, like churches. Suppose you and I consistently spend more than we make, and much of that spending is on things like expensive coffees or ice cream or a pricey steak? What if we’re addicted to those luxuries so much that we decide we have to have them instead of giving to the church or some charity?

Or how about the church like the one where I started out as an associate pastor? They had a huge mortgage payment, which came right off the top before anything else. Giving never quite measured up, so my youth budget got slashed over and over in favor of the bank note.

Suppose sleep won’t come night after night because you’re worried about that big balance you’re carrying on each of your three or four or five cards, and with minimum payments, you’ll never be free of debt? So day after day you’re irritable and distracted at work and with your family. What if the way we spend our money is an index of our true values? “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also,” said Jesus. And I think the reverse is true: “where your heart is, there is where you will invest your treasure.”

Isn’t it true that you and I can almost always find the money in organizations and personally for what we really think is important, even if to the outside observer it looks trivial. For example, a few years ago, I heard of a businessman in a failing, nearly bankrupt organization who bought himself, with company funds, an $800 office chair, but publicly criticized an employee for buying a $50 paper cutter that everyone in the office needed. Or think of just these two statistics: Americans spend $134 billion annually on fast food and $97 billion a year on beer (source: http://wiki.answers.com). What if only a portion of that were spent on relieving hunger or providing clean water or affordable housing?

So the apostle is talking about actual debt and money. But even if none of us had any mortgages and paid for everything we got with cash and barter, there would still be a debt crisis in our land. Because every one of us owes or ought to owe, a debt of love to our neighbors. No collectors call if we don’t pay. Our credit rating with Experian and the other credit bureaus stays in the high numbers. But there are other, more dire consequences. If we don’t pay this debt, our lives will be impoverished. We’ll be ruined at the deepest level of our being. We could have millions of dollars in the bank, but you and I would be morally and spiritually bankrupt.

We’re called on to pay this debt frequently. In fact, it comes due not just once a month, but every minute, every hour. The bill varies. Sometimes it’s really big, and we wince at the cost. Other times we pay it with the smallest of coins.

But it’s an urgent responsibility. See, love is in danger of extinction. As singer Don Henley once put it in a hit song: “These times are so uncertain: there’s a yearning undefined; and people, filled with rage. We all need a little tenderness. How can love survive in such a graceless age?” (“The Heart of the Matter”) That’s an old song, but Henley’s concerns are even more relevant now. You know as well as I that we live in a malicious and mean-spirited society. Everywhere, including in the churches, I see prejudice and hatred, lying and backstabbing, the desire to get revenge and promote fear. Paul calls on us to stand against the culture and make the decision to love.

Let’s be very, very clear. Love is not a warm fuzzy, though who doesn’t like a soft kitten or cuddly puppy? He’s not talking about romantic attraction, though that is one of the greatest powers in the world. Love doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry, if you remember the old movie line. In fact, probably just the opposite. No. Love is a verb. And we all remember our grammar. A verb is an action word.

Paul sums up what he has in mind with one sentence: “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” Just seven words in English as well as in the original Greek. But unpacking that brief sentence is complicated. Who is my neighbor? The Bible’s definition is quite broad, and the Greek word also means “fellow human being.” Certainly we think of those of the church and our immediate community. But is not anyone and everyone on this planet in some sense our neighbor, especially those in need? And how can I know if I’m doing no harm? We would not think of striking and injuring someone. But are my spending and consumption hurting someone across the globe because the products I buy are made in a sweatshop and my neighbor in another country is thus working under miserable conditions so I can have a product? If I drive carelessly or when I’m angry, could I not very well harm my neighbor who is also driving his or her car or crossing the street? What if my off-hand remark I meant to be funny was actually insensitive and deeply wounds someone else?

Where do we go for help in sorting all this out? Of course, the first place is the Scriptures, and there’s more than enough there. Like the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. And we know the oft-quoted and summary command: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Both Jesus and Paul make that the basis of their teaching. Here is just a sampling of practical examples of how to do what they say. Some wisdom from Proverbs to begin. Proverbs 11:12 (NIV): “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue.” Proverbs 14:21: “Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor.” Proverbs 3:28,29: “Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it’—when you have it with you.” Proverbs 16:29: ”The violent entice their neighbors, and lead them in a way that is not good.”

Then to Leviticus 19:13-18, the original context of “love your neighbor as yourself”: “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

Was it a surprise that Leviticus said correcting or rebuking someone about their behavior was an expression of love? The Gospel reading for the morning gives an example of such loving admonishment in the community of faith. Someone has wronged another member of the church. What is to be done? There are several options. The one wronged could stew about the grievance and hold a grudge. He or she could spread rumors about the offending brother or sister. Or the hurt one could do the unthinkable: go to the person who committed the offense and talk. Love wants a relationship to be made whole again. Love that does no harm knows that a sister or a brother is harmed by being alienated from another, whether he or she knows it or not. The one who was hurt is harmed, too, because he or she doesn’t have a proper relationship with the other member. Wholeness is found in community. The purpose of the conversation, as difficult and painful as it may be, is to regain a positive relationship. Love leads us to seek out those who have done us wrong and talk seriously about what happened.

None of us likes to talk about things that are unpleasant. Sometimes we’d rather sweep problems under the rug. We seem to believe that if we ignore them long enough, they’ll go away, like a stray dog who comes around wanting food and a scratch behind the ears. And ignoring a problem works for awhile. But if that’s our standard method of conflict management, we’re in for a rude surprise. One day, like a volcano, it will all erupt—all the pain, all the anger, all the frustration, and for the slightest of reasons. Except that what we see as a triviality is actually a trigger.

My first time in seminary, I shared a house with three other guys named Jim, Ernie, and John. I barely knew John and Ernie; they seemed to be gone most of the time. But Jim and I got to be good friends. Some of the things I did rubbed him the wrong way and vice-versa. But I was brought up to be nice; you simply didn’t say things to people. Talk about them behind their backs, yes, but not to their face.

But one day I had had it. For some reason, the way Jim answered the phone pushed some button. All my anger and frustration and irritation focused on the silly way Jim pronounced “hello.” I confronted him, and we had it out about all the issues that I had had and he had had since we met. Our friendship was actually stronger after that. I had gained a brother.

Paying the debt of love can be hard. Those who find they are overextended on their charge cards face a change in lifestyle if they are to avoid financial ruin. They have to stop impulse buying or going to fancy restaurants, do with the clothes and the car they have, put something in savings. They have to ask questions about why they are driven to shop and to buy.

So too do we have to change our lives if we are to pay the debt of love. We need to begin to believe that what we do matters. Our calling is urgent. Our neighbors need us now.

No, paying the debt of love isn’t easy. But Paul is convinced that trying to fulfill every detail of the law would be harder still. He should know. He tried and failed, as did his peers. Better to have one focus, one ultimate calling, one principle that guides us in every situation. People in debt try to consolidate all their payments into one monthly amount to one company. Rather like that, we follow this one summary statement that fulfills all the requirements of God: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We can’t live such a life in our own strength. And we don’t have to. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again today: the good news is always that we are not alone and that we don’t need to be afraid. Whether we’re gathered in a little group of two or three, in a megachurch filled with thousands, or anywhere in between, Jesus has promised to be among us. Prayer holds us up, as do our sisters and brothers. Faith in God’s purpose gives us hope. And so we can go out to love.

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